Local Teams Win Zero Robotics, FIRST Competitions
What does it take to control small, spherical flying robots in a true zero gravity environment to mine virtual asteroids while fending off opponents with virtual shields, lasers and tractor beams?
Students from Cocoa Beach and Rockledge high schools' Kennedy Space Center-sponsored For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics software teams, known as the Pink Team, found out recently when they competed in this year's AsteroSPHERES, a simulated satellite game, sponsored by NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"The goal of AsteroSPHERES is to use simulated satellites, or SPHERES, to virtually mine the most ore from asteroids out in space and collect points in various ways as the competition progresses," said Enrique Eligio, a software engineer and Pink Team mentor from Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Fla.
Pink Team students spent about four months writing, perfecting and demonstrating the software to control the small flying robots. Of the 104 teams from the U.S. and Europe, only 54 teams continued on past the semi-finals phase. Those 54 teams were divided into three-school alliances.
Team Rocket Alliance included Rockledge High and two alliance teams, River Hill High in Clarksville, Md., and a school called Storming Robots Technology Learning Center in Branchburg, N.J.
The Rockledge High and Cocoa Beach High teams advanced through several elimination rounds and semi-finals.
Rocket Alliance team member Emma Banks is a senior who plans to major in computer science or marine biology. She said the general consensus among team members was that the competition was very overwhelming at first.
"My intent was to learn more about programming because it is a future career choice for me," Banks said. "It was a good way to get used to deadlines and real-life use, like a hands-on test."
Banks said it really is unlike any other competition because it implemented the team's own computer code into real-life situations.
Clement Li is a senior at Cocoa Beach High School who plans to major in chemistry, chemical engineering or aerospace engineering in college.
Li said his team and alliance members from Shawnee Mission Northwest in Kansas and Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., spent considerable time debating strategies, counter-strategies and potential scenarios.
"The game was engaging, and I often spent multiple hours trying to optimize the code or develop a more effective strategy," Li said.
Team Rocket Alliance reached the final competition round which included a live demonstration of the virtual mining software aboard the International Space Station. Team Rocket Alliance was declared the winner by space station Flight Engineer Don Pettit, with assistance from Flight Engineer Andre Kuipers.
"Although competing onboard the International Space Station was fascinating in itself," Li said, "the competition was an engaging introduction into programming, providing an experience that some schools do not offer."
Eligio said that Pettit thanked all the students who wrote spaceflight-ready code for the space station because real-working hardware is a winner. He congratulated all of the participants and said he hoped to see everyone again next year.
The Pink Team also recently competed in the FIRST robotics regional competition at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. More than 60 teams took part in the competition.
Andrew Bradley, a control systems engineer in Kennedy's Engineering Directorate and Pink Team mentor said this year's competition resembled a basketball game and was called the "Rebound Rumble."
Bradley said the team had some challenges with its robot, called Roccobot, but persevered to reach the second seed position at the end of the qualifying rounds. During the elimination finals, the Pink Team joined with another Brevard team, The Bionic Tigers, and a team from Jacksonville to win the competition.
"They simply didn't give up, they played smart and they ended up with the gold," Bradley said. "They also won FIRST's highest honor, the Chairman's Award."
Bradley said the Chairman's Award honors the team that, in the judges' estimation, is the best model for other teams to emulate, and that embodies the goals and purpose of FIRST.
Bradley said one of the things that makes FIRST unique is the spirit of gracious professionalism.
"Although the competition is real and intense, the teams are all friends and openly help each other," Bradley said. "The Pink Team has helped start four other FIRST robotic teams and our mentors often moonlight as mentors for other area teams that have a need."
To learn more about the FIRST competition, visit:
To view the Pink Team's Chairman Award video, visit:
To learn more about the Zero Robotics program, visit:
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center